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Ohio State vs. Notre Dame isn't the Playoff, but it should be the 5th-place game

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In the polls, six teams currently rank ahead of the Fiesta Bowl's opponents. You really think there are six teams better than the winner of this game? Jan. 1, 1 ET, ESPN.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Combined F/+ ratings: Orange Bowl plus-114.7 percent, Cotton Bowl plus-109.3 percent, Fiesta Bowl plus-98.9 percent. From a pure strength perspective, the Fiesta almost qualifies as a third Playoff game. No other bowl tops plus-67 percent.

And it's kicking off early enough on Friday that we won't have to watch much of Northwestern-Tennessee!

1. Always bet on the field

No matter how invincible a defending champion appears, the odds of repeating are long. Florida couldn't do it in 2009. Alabama couldn't (again) in 2013. Florida State couldn't in 2014. Ohio State won't this season.

You need both sustained quality and the right bounces, and while the Buckeyes survived an early funk, they needed a break that never came in bad weather against Michigan State. They lost the plot in their play-calling, gave up a few too many 3-yard gains on third-and-3 and handed their Playoff spot to the Spartans.

They took out their frustrations on Michigan in a 42-13 romp in Ann Arbor. Scorned Ohio State is brutal Ohio State, and despite disappointment, it would be a surprise if the Buckeyes didn't put on a show against Notre Dame. With Ezekiel Elliott, Braxton Miller and Joey Bosa playing in their final games, Urban Meyer's squad will bring an A- or B-game to the table.

If Notre Dame does too, then look out. The upside in this matchup is immense.

Meyer has recruited well in his four years, and the defense is still young enough to perhaps play at an elite level in 2016. Still, because of the names and faces, this game feels like the end of an era.

Ohio State has gone 49-4 since Meyer came to town, going undefeated in a probation year in 2012, winning the national title despite quarterback injuries in 2014 and finishing around the top 10 in 2015 even with a Fiesta Bowl loss. Jim Tressel set the bar ridiculously high, with eight top-10 finishes (and seven top-5 finishes) in nine years, but Meyer is close to matching that.

Still, even with a 12-1 finish, 2015 will be remembered with a twinge of disappointment. Ohio State may have been even better on defense this year (11th in Def. S&P+ in 2014, ninth currently), but the offense never found fifth gear. Bouncing between Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett at quarterback, the Buckeyes established a rhythm on standard downs but struggled once behind the chains.

Jones averaged a decent 7.4 yards per pass attempt but forced the issue on third downs. Barrett added mobility but averaged just 6.3 yards per throw. And with the season on the line, Meyer and coordinator Ed Warinner didn't trust Barrett to make plays; against Michigan State, he completed nine of 16 passes for 46 yards.

Still, the Buckeyes spent a good portion of the year looking like they were supposed to. And they match up pretty well with Notre Dame's strengths and weaknesses.

2. Notre Dame has proved more in 2015 than it did in 2012

Notre Dame was a good team in 2012. You'll never read me saying otherwise. The Fighting Irish had a solid offense and a bend-don't-break defense that formed an umbrella while Manti Te'o pursued. They won five games by one possession, sure, and four were against teams that finished 8-5 or worse. They were good (sixth in F/+) but probably not national-title caliber. That was proved when they faced Alabama in the BCS Championship.

Brian Kelly's 2015 squad ranks one spot higher in F/+. This is despite losing running back Tarean Folston in the first game, quarterback Malik Zaire in the second, safety Drue Tranquill in the third and many others, plus two potential starters -- running back Greg Bryant and defensive lineman Ishaq Williams -- to eligibility issues before the season started.

New star running back C.J. Prosise, defensive tackle Daniel Cage and linebacker James Onwualu missed two games. Safety Max Redfield (now suspended for the Fiesta Bowl) and cornerback KeiVarae Russell missed one. I assume I'm missing more. The depth chart was truly fluid.

Notre Dame just kept playing well. The Irish crushed Texas in the season opener, pulled away from a good Navy, beat USC by 10 and outlasted a good Temple. Despite lopping off nearly half of their intended first string, they continued to play at a top-10 level.

They lost only to No. 1 Clemson (by two on the road in a monsoon) and Pac-12 champion Stanford (via last-second field goal on the road). They were awesome. An Irish squad with good injury luck would be in the Playoff.

This coulda-woulda-shoulda year was draining, but maybe rest allows Notre Dame to find fifth gear for the battle.

On paper, the Irish's newfound run efficiency -- this is the first good run game Notre Dame has had in a while, and it came without Folston and Bryant -- could allow them to stay on schedule and avoid giving Bosa hard-charging shots on quarterback Deshone Kizer.

And with a strong third-down defense and the ability to make stops in the backfield (lineman Sheldon Day, linebacker Jaylon Smith and safety Elijah Shumate have combined for 25 non-sack tackles for loss), maybe Notre Dame has exactly what it takes to force Ohio State's offense into another identity crisis. One more awesome performance isn't too much to ask for, right?

3. Key Stat: Standard downs success

Check out the monstrous stat preview here.

Spread: Ohio State -6.5
S&P+ Projection: Ohio State 32.4, Notre Dame 28.0
Team Sites: One Foot Down, Land-Grant Holy Land
Notre Dame Offense Ohio State Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 120.6 10 121.3 8
Standard Downs Success Rate 48.3% 42 38.5% 8 Ohio State
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.22 22 1.13 55 Notre Dame
Ohio State Offense Notre Dame Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 121.2 9 103.7 50 Ohio State
Standard Downs Success Rate 53.6% 12 45.3% 55 Ohio State
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.14 47 1.08 78 Ohio State

Kizer has been brilliant on passing downs, but so has Ohio State's defense.

Barrett and Jones have struggled a bit on passing downs, and while Notre Dame's defense has only been good on passing downs, they could punish Ohio State in these situations.

The matchups are pretty even, which probably means that the team that takes fewer snaps on passing downs will derive a hefty advantage.

This tells us why Ohio State has the projected advantage overall. Notre Dame's defense has been mediocre on standard downs, and Ohio State's offense has not. Notre Dame will have to match Barrett and company when it comes to staying on schedule, and that might be a tall task.


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